IOWA CITY — Major budget cuts last year at the University of Northern Iowa could have been handled in a better way, leaders of the state Board of Regents said Saturday, but regents now are focused on moving forward, dealing with challenges UNI still faces and building relationships with faculty there.
“As I look back on it, could we have diminished the outrage of the public, the concerns of the faculty if we had postponed it for another year? Yes, but we would not have gotten the $4 million from the Iowa Legislature” in special funding for UNI, Regents President Craig Lang said. “I’ll be the first one to tell you … we could have done it in a better way, we should have probably done it in a better way, but this is what we did.”
Lang and Regents President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter spoke on Saturday to about 40 people during the spring meeting of the American Association of University Professors Iowa Conference, held at the University of Iowa. Most who attended are faculty at the regent universities.
The discussion touched on shared governance, tenure, outreach around the state and academic freedom, but Lang and Rastetter fielded several questions regarding how the regents handled UNI’s budget cuts, which included academic program cuts and closure of the Price Lab School on campus. The process drew criticism from the AAUP and a faculty vote of no confidence in UNI President Ben Allen.
Frank Thompson, a UNI finance professor, said the cuts have led to enrollment declines and difficulty in hiring faculty and administrators. He said faculty did not feel engaged in the search for the new UNI president — William Ruud will replace the retiring Allen this summer — and faculty leaders wonder how the regents will re-establish trust.
“Faculty do not believe they are respected by the board of regents,” Thompson said. “We can talk as much as we want about the idea that we value shared governance, we value tenure, but if the actions are different, then you have … dissonance.”
Rastetter said in looking back, the UNI changes and cuts should have been a more public process. But funding challenges still remain for UNI, due to the school’s heavy reliance on in-state enrollment, and the regents want to move forward to address those issues and work with faculty, he said.
UNI professor Joe Gorton, president-elect of the United Faculty bargaining group, said after the discussion he feels there has not been evidence of regent leaders reaching out to UNI faculty. He was hoping for a more concrete discussion Saturday of how conditions would be improved.
“I don’t think this was a serious discussion of the serious needs facing our campus,” he said.
One question to Lang and Rastetter during the session asked if they will work to support Senate File 407, a measure aimed at subjecting the regents to more public scrutiny and adding public comment time to the board meetings. The measure has been approved by the Senate and is now in the House.
Lang’s response: “hell no.” He added that’s because he believes everything the bill aims to accomplish will be addressed by the new transparency task force of the regents. Lang said he supports the idea of public comment time to the board, but not at every regents meeting, since those agendas are typically quite full. He suggested special meetings a few times a year specifically for public comments.
Lang’s term on the regents ends April 30, after the Iowa Senate last week declined to confirm the governor’s reappointment of Lang, on a 30-20 vote. Lang needed 34 votes for approval. On Saturday, Lang said he feels good about the six years he spent as a regent, including the last two and a half as board president.
“I think my footsteps have been ones that are positive,” he said.
He encouraged more interaction between faculty members and citizens of Iowa, to help develop more understanding of the role the universities play in the state, noting that “faculty is the lifeblood of a great university.”
For his successor, Lang recommends the new board president work to know faculty members and what their priorities are. Getting to know faculty is something “I should have worked harder from day one” on when he first became a regent, Lang said.